With school budget crunches worsening, there is an increasing interest in free, open, and/or digital instructional resources. States like California, Texas, Indiana, and others are setting policies to allow and even encourage non-traditional resources to compete with traditional textbooks for funding dollars thereby prompting more wide-scale usage. These initiatives include various emphases on free, open, and digital materials.
The labels of free, open, and digital are very different though. Understanding the differences is important and is more than just nuance, though even the smartest of policymakers and leaders seem fuzzy on the differences.
I’ve spoken and written somewhat extensively already about the difference between free and open. There are many, many free tools out there that are not open. The implications of that are that 1) they may not always be free (or even exist); 2) you most likely can’t modify or redistribute them (which is essential for differentiating instruction); 3) you likely do not control your own data.
Conversely, all open resources have a free version. However, all versions of an open resources are not necessarily free. For example, while most open-licensed textbooks are distributed online free of charge, there could also be versions, especially, for example, physical products (printed or CD/DVD), that are sold (assuming no non-commercial license). Not only is this permissible, but it likely to be necessary if open textbooks are to gain wide adoption.
So now on to the difference between open and digital. Digital merely means that the materials are available in an electronic format. It does not imply that the materials are open or free. So, for example, a PDF file of a traditional textbook would qualify as “digital,” though it offers very few advantages over print. Most importantly, digital but proprietary resources are not able legally to be modified or remixed, which is an essential element of differentiating instruction (and what most policymakers are hoping for with digital resources, I think).
Nearly all open resources are available in a digital format. It is implicit, though not technically required, in the definition of open.
So why are these distinctions important? Because in order to redirect valuable funds from print to more flexible digital resources AND to be able to remix these resources to make them suitable for a wide range of learners’ needs, new initiatives need to focus on OPEN and DIGITAL resources. To do less is a disservice to our educational system.